Simplicity in Presentations

A common problem in presentations, or communication in general, is the lack of simplicity. All too often we see PowerPoint slides that are brimming with text. This is due to the presenter’s inability to simplify his or her message. Most presenters fear they will fail to convey their idea, so they provide as much elaboration and information as possible to ensure that the audience gets it. However, this accomplishes the opposite: it overwhelms people to the extent that they zone out.

We get it. In introducing a new service or training, it needs to be explained in detail, but the answer isn’t to fill each slide with a wall of text. The answer is to simplify your message. This is crucial in every aspect of a presentation, not just the content. It’s common sense: complex ideas are hard to understand, and simple ideas are easy to understand. Why say something in 20 words when you can say it in 7? Why include all the colors when you can pick just two? Why talk about the extra details that aren’t important? Whether it’s with content, design, or delivery, simplifying every aspect of your presentation is a good thing. If your content is simple, it is easier to understand and remember. The simpler the design, the more cohesive and effective the presentation. If your delivery is simple, you’ll come off as natural and confident in a way that connects with your audience.

Give your listeners some credit. Don’t insult them by holding their hand and walking them through every slide. Allow them to come to their own conclusions.

The best way to simplify a message is to say it in a single sentence. How is that possible? Easy. When our clients aren’t sure what their overall message is, we often ask them that if they could express it in only one sentence, what would it be? This forces them to uncover the simplest version of their idea and to realize the importance of brevity. Once you’re able to boil down your presentation into a single sentence, build every slide around that one idea to ensure your message is prevalent throughout. This one sentence is the main takeaway for your audience.

How is this different from your big idea? Well, your central message is the content that helps the audience understand the big idea more clearly. Your big idea is a challenge to the audience; your central message is a simple way to express it.

This simple advice will help you get rid of the jargon, clutter, and dead weight of your presentation material to reveal the underlying message. The next time you’re preparing for a presentation, ask one of your friends to be your audience while you do a practice run. However, instead of viewing him (or her) as your friend, pretend he’s a child. If you put too much text on a slide, he won’t read it. If you give him too much information, jargon, or complexity, he’ll become confused. And if your message isn’t simple, he’ll forget what you said. You can lose your audience at any moment unless your message is the simplest version of itself.

The hardest part is sticking to this rule. We’re not always allowed to pick our topic, the subject we present, or the amount of information we have to throw at the audience. However, it’s important to remember that you can simplify content without omitting information. The next time you need help condensing information, just pretend you have to present to a group of five-year-olds.

It’s about focusing on the bigger picture, the message you want your audience to walk away with. What is it? What do you want people to be thinking when they get up and leave? They’re not going to remember how the pillars of your company are structured on that one slide with all the stats. They’re going to remember the theme of your presentation, the message it conveyed to them—or they’re going to remember nothing at all. Don’t bury the audience with explanations, elaborations, examples, and so on, when none are actually needed. If the purpose of slide 13 is to help explain slide 12, then slide 12 isn’t good enough.

We’ve successfully taken 200-slide presentations and reduced them to a single idea, so we can say unequivocally that there are no exceptions to refining your message. You just need to look over everything you have, remove the complexity, and focus on the main points. After you’ve done that, combine those points into a single sentence and build your presentation from there. Make your message known on every slide, but leave enough mystery for your listeners to bridge the gaps themselves. You want them to move along easily, and that’s possible only with simple information.

Let’s say a shoe company has hundreds of different types of athletic shoes—a shoe for every sport, activity, or hobby. And it has all these types of shoes because it wants its customers to feel confident in every area of activity they do currently or may want to do in the future.

However, when the company presents its message—its idea—it doesn’t show every shoe and explain every shoe’s function. It doesn’t list all the values the company is built on or the profit margins that show it’s successful, followed by a few testimonials and case studies. All it says is a single, simple sentence that even a five-year-old can understand:

Just do it.